Passenger numbers down by 13% in January-March quarter. Chris Cheek offers his analysis

Bus patronage in Great Britain over the past 10 years

The downward trend in bus demand in Great Britain accelerated in the quarter ended March 31, falling by 13%, according to statistics published by the Department for Transport. The fall includes the first effects of the COVID-19 measures, with the lockdown taking effect on March 23.

Separate figures from the DfT show that demand had begun to fall before the formal announcement, falling to just above 50% of normal during the week before the announcement and to around 12-17% immediately after.

The DfT’s provisional seasonally adjusted estimates put total demand during the 12 weeks at 1,046 million passenger journeys, compared with 1,202 million in the same quarter in 2019, a fall of 13%. The figures show that demand fell in all areas, with Wales seeing the largest decline, of 15.7%. Next came London on 13.5%, Scotland (13.1%), the Shire areas of England (12.5%) and the PTE areas (11.9%). The total for Great Britain outside London was 12.5% down on 572 million.

Rolling Year figures

The provisional figures for the whole year to March 31 show total demand for bus services in Great Britain at 4,592 million passenger journeys, 8.4% lower than the same figure in 2019. This total is the lowest figure since the series began in 2004.

Largest fall came in Wales, showing a 5.9% decline, followed by London (4.9%) and the PTE Areas (4.6%). The figures for Scotland were 3.6% down and Shire areas 3.2%.


The latest fare indices, also published by DfT, show that in the year to December, bus fares rose by an average of 0.3% after taking account of inflation, compared with March 2019.

There was no change in London, virtually none in the PTE areas (0.1%), 0.5% in the Shires and 1.8% in Scotland. Real-term fares in Wales fell by 0.2%.

Looking back over the last five years, fares in the capital have fallen by 2.1%, thanks to Sadiq Khan’s fares freeze. Elsewhere there have been real-term rises, including 8.2% in the English Shire areas, 5.0% in the PTE areas, 4.6% in Scotland, and 3.9% in Wales.


Well, we all knew that this set of figures would be bad, given the point at which the pandemic started to hit transport demand. We also know that this quarter is but the prelude to the decimation we will see when the spring quarter’s figures are published in September.

It is difficult to get a read on the underlying pre-COVID-19 trends given the distortion of the last month, but other data on the economy suggests that they would not have been pretty. In any case, there is still a suspicion that the virus has knocked the transport world off its axis, so that pre-lockdown trends may well be largely meaningless.

The DfT’s daily estimates on transport demand since the lockdown show bus demand in London running at around 16-18% of normal levels during the rest of March and the first three weeks of April, until buses in the capital went fares free on the April 19 and they stopped counting. Outside London, the estimates show demand running at around 12-14% during April and May, though it began to pick up in June, reaching as high as 18-19% by the middle of the month. Once shops started to reopen, numbers seem to have reached around 24% in the third week.

With the announcement of further liberalisation measures from July 4, including the easing of the social distancing guidelines and the reopening of the hospitality and leisure industries, there must be some expectation that numbers will recover further.

There is still much concern in industry circles, though, that the fear factor induced by government urgings to avoid public transport during the spring will have a lasting effect on the propensity to return

There is still much concern in industry circles, though, that the fear factor induced by government urgings to avoid public transport during the spring will have a lasting effect on the propensity to return – not to mention the massive social changes that are expected. All we can do is wait and see – oh, and pray that the new environmental consciousness lasts long enough for some positive pro-public transport measures to be introduced… but don’t hold your breath!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Cheek has worked in the public transport industry for over 46 years, the last 31 as an analyst and consultant. He is Managing Director of Passenger Transport Intelligence Services (PTIS). To read more about Chris – CLICK HERE.

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